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Fourth Wave: Part One

“If feminism is the radical idea that women are people, then trans-feminism is the radical idea that women come in different containers”

I mentioned in my links yesterday a somewhat disposable exchange that occurred on the Ms. Magazine blog regarding the “conundrum” of how trans-feminism is to fit into the future of feminism. While in and of itself, this exchange isn’t particularly interesting, and is rather just yet another iteration of the increasingly tired (in a “oh come on are we really still asking this? This should not be any kind of deal” kind of way) validation of feminism’s cis-supremacist fringe, I find that there’s one little beautiful and highly radical question hiding in there beneath the vapidity. One that is likely just an accident on the original author’s part but that nonetheless coalesces several threads of thought that have been tangled up in my brain these past couple months. Coalesces into something rather important to ask:

Perhaps the future of feminism is trans-feminism?

Since its inception, one of the principle driving concepts underlying feminism has been that biology is not destiny, that the gender roles associated with women (and men) are not indispensable, “natural” or inherent, and that we cannot (must not) create prescriptive social structures on the basis of those arbitrarily defined roles and their association with certain biologies. That we must not prescribe what a life is to entail on the basis of the gender that life happens to inhabit. It’s the inevitable, and necessary, progression of these concepts that the genders themselves must not be prescribed. If biology really isn’t destiny, we mustn’t limit that question of destiny to roles and social positions, but extend it to biology itself. Biology isn’t social destiny, but biology isn’t biological destiny either. If we’re to truly confront and destabilize gender’s capacity to operate as a determinant, prescriptive force, we need to embrace those who refuse to allow gender to determine or prescribe gender. We need to embrace the possibilities of gender fluidity, transience, transgression, variance and rejection, else we’ve mired ourselves in hypocritical half-measures. Else we’re posing the image of claiming our gender-assignment does not define us, but still unwilling to take the plunge into full self-determination.

Insofar as feminism is to be able to progress forward at all, it must be able to address things like differing morphologies, differing narratives, differing paths to womanhood (or from it), differing socializations, differing axes of gender-based oppression, etc. Third-Wave Feminism has generally been doing a good job of moving forward with this, through confronting intersectionality along lines of race, poverty, sexual orientation, disability, body type, neurotypicality, and other qualifying aspects of experience and identity (as defined by existing hierarchies), obvious or otherwise. But despite the pressingly obvious manner in which transgenderism intersects with gender-based oppression, and embodies many desperately important questions (and goals!) of feminism, there is repeated reluctance, controversy, push-back, anger, exclusion, erasure, pathologization, ridicule and all other means of forcing silence when it’s posed as a similar qualifier. It remains a “conundrum” even after decades of trans people fighting side by side with feminists and queer rights activists. As much as we’ve fought for them, and our own demands and actions have so often prefigured their victories, we continue to sit in the waiting room, perpetually hoping for them to “get around” to trans rights, to “figure out” what we mean to them (never, of course, being asked what we mean to us). We’re still an unsettled, and unsettling, question.

I have my own conundrum:


It seems to me that the reason this particular issue of intersection, of corresponding and mitigating oppression, remains something feminism is reluctant to address is because it ends up challenging some of the ideological foundations on which much of feminism has been built. While acknowledging other intersectionalities demands that one not continue framing feminism through the needs and perspectives of middle-class, white, heterosexual women, it does not threaten the fundamental cis-privileged perspective that drove so much of the movement: that we live in a world defined by a binary male/female Hegelian dialectic, with a “master” oppressor (men) and a ‘slave” victim (women). A conflict that, like that supposed between the proletariat and the bourgeois, must someday be resolved.

Just as the Marxist tendency to frame all social dynamics and “ills” as stemming from a singular binary conflict was, in retrospect, a blatant oversimplification that of course led to disaster when used as the theoretical basis for a utopian social engineering project, this boys vs. girls idea of how the social dynamics of gender, sex and sexuality operate is similarly myopic, and similarly (to inevitable disaster) seeks to ignore all the variables that complicate and threaten the assumption on which it is based. Just like Stalin began projects of “Marxist science”, science based on good Marxist principles, unlike the nasty actual science being conducted under his government that suggested ways the world operates in ways more complicated than the black/white ideology he was certain would lead to a wondrous future, many branches of feminism have arrived at the point where they’d rather reject those facts and new ideas that threaten their ideological principles even if it comes at the expense of being a movement that has any claim to the term “progressive”, or any claim of speaking to the realities of gender and gender-based oppression. Transgender and intersex human beings are a fact that cannot (and will not) be theorized away. In walling us and our implications out of your movement, you’re really only walling yourselves into irrelevance. Your Marxist genetics won’t yield better crops.

But in as much as feminism has had a right to describe itself as progressive, that progress was always ultimately in the name of self-annihilation. The most reasonable and also the most powerfully radical ambition of feminism was to eventually bring about the circumstances that would undo its own necessity… or at least create the circumstances where a new movement, a new revolution, a new turning of the wheel, would be necessitated instead. When feminists begin to selfishly cling to and reinforce the concepts that made feminism a necessary response, they have become quintessentially anti-feminist: a force for gender’s status quo. Maintenance of old ideas, old hierarchies, old conflicts, old oppressions. And this does NOT merely harm the principle “threats” to those ideas and the status quo that necessitates them, like trans people. It harms everyone who is currently holding the short end of the gender stick …which is almost all of us.

Frankly, the trans-exclusionist, anti-sex-worker, so-called radical feminists are precisely the opposite of radical. They are stodgily clinging to a dying era …and more so one that very much needs to die.

To recap the word salad: positively addressing trans-feminism is essential to feminism continuing to move forward. If feminism ceases to move forward, it starts becoming part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

If existing branches of feminism will not move forward with us, it is time to accept we need to leave them behind. If feminism itself, as it currently exists, also continues to look backwards, continues to fail to move past the “conundrum” of trans-feminism, continues to treat it as a “controversy” rather than a natural, inevitable extension of the ideas that biology is not destiny and we can be more than the social expectations coercively placed upon us in accordance with our gender assignment, then it is time to move forward without it too.

I’m tired of waiting for the rest of feminism to catch up.

This is not the first time a fundamental break was needed within feminism. First wave addressed the basic principle of women being directly politically disenfranchised, and made the initial declaration that women are also citizens, human beings, deserving of basic rights, but it generally failed to examine what exactly being a woman meant, or what was expected of women, or the numerous and more subtle ways in which women’s access to power and social participation was limited. Second wave pushed forward, and began to ask the harder questions that first wave did not. It began to examine how basic human rights and citizenship were not sufficient, but we also needed to address the cultural understanding of gender and how women are colonized by patriarchy to such an extent that their vote may ultimately not even be their own vote, or only a vote for which man would continue to ignore the needs, desires and ambitions of women. But second wave was still hobbled by its failure to look beyond the needs, desires and ambitions of those women who were positioned with no accompanying social disadvantages, and failed to fully consider patriarchy and misogyny in relation to other forms of oppression and discrimination. Despite the best efforts of numerous women of colour and queer women active within feminism during the time (just as there are active trans-feminists now), the movement as a whole was largely limited in scope to the plight of the middle-class white housewife. It also engaged in numerous forms of gender essentialism that simply enabled new means of keeping women, and men, in “their place”… like how the “women’s intuition” concept was tacitly suggesting women lacked the full capacity for reason that men had. Third wave began to much more directly address intersectionality, and also began to expand the concept of patriarchy from direct, deliberate disenfranchisement of women but instead to an emergent system based on largely unconscious assumptions and biases about gender. Furthermore, it made the crucial step of examining gender-binarism and essentialism, and the ways that these assumptions and biases about gender cut both ways, and harm men as well as women.

In each instance, the breaks were defined by an essential and necessary step forward that previous generations of feminists had been reluctant to take. We are now again presented with exactly that kind of necessary step.

I have no illusions that the suggestion of trans-feminism stepping forward as the inevitable 4th wave of feminism is going to make a lot of people very angry, and many more very uncomfortable. I can already hear the assertions that this would be wholesale “appropriation” of feminism by “men” who are no longer content to merely “invade”; or for those less overtly transphobic feminists, “people who identify or were socialized as male”. But the idea that this would in any way be an “appropriation”, or that feminism somehow exclusively belongs to cisgender women, belies exactly the problematic, archaic assumptions about gender, gender-based oppression and feminism that most need to be questioned and challenged. This will piss a lot of people off, and raise a lot of hard questions, but those are the people who most need to be pissed off (with the hope that they’ll get around to asking themselves why they’re angry), and the hard questions that most need to be asked.

Addressing these kinds of difficult, complex, uncomfortable questions is hard. But becoming obsolete is worse.

I’m a big fan of the quote with which I began this post. But there’s a subtle, important change I’d like to make that I feel gets to one of the finer points of what trans-feminism can, and perhaps should, be:

If feminism is the radical idea that women are people, trans-feminism is the radical idea that people come in different containers.